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Peacemaking Heritage Series: Abolitionist, Feminist and Millerite

Angelina and Sarah Grimké, sisters from a prominent slaveholding family from South Carolina, became powerful anti-slavery lecturers during the 1830s. They became particularly controversial for lecturing to public audiences that included men as well as women.

Their work prompted the rebuke by an association of Massachusetts clergymen which issued a “pastoral letter” in 1837 to be read from every Congregational pulpit in the state, declaring that when a woman “assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer . . . her character becomes unnatural.” Defending their right to speak out, the Grimké sisters made a biblical case for women’s equality a decade before the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848.

Angelina married the abolitionist leader Theodore Dwight Weld in 1838, with whom she and Sarah produced American Slavery As It Is (1839) which, by extensively documenting the realities of slavery, became one the most effective tools in the abolitionist cause.

In the following excerpt from her book The Religious World of Antislavery Women, Anna M. Speicher discusses Angelina’s convictions about the “second Advent” message preached by William Miller.

. . .After her marriage, however, [Angelina] became increasingly convinced by the Millerite view. She moved from the postmillennialist understanding that the Kingdom of God would be established on earth prior to the Second Coming of Christ to the premillennialist view that God would destroy the world before the return of the Messiah. The optimistic tone that had prevailed in her earlier writing disappeared; she now declared that she was “entirely prepared to give up the old idea of a Millennium and to embrace the opinion that the destruction of the world will precede it.”

Grimké Weld’s Millerism caused some consternation at home and abroad. In her immediate circle, both her husband and her sister, along with her closest friend, Jane Smith, were alarmed about her adoption of a view many regarded as implausible, if not completely ludicrous. She defended her views to her family and friends privately, and in a recapitulation of her former confident style, did not hesitate to declare them in public. During a visit to Philadelphia in 1842, she attended a gathering at which

some allusion was made to Miller views – evidently showing that he was regarded as a wild and ignorant fanatic. I felt that it was duty calmly to state my solemn conviction that he had a mass of evidence, from the Bible and History to sustain him in his theory that no other writer on prophecy ever had. They seemed utterly amazed I should think so and asked if it was possible I believed him. I told them I did – that the more I examined the subject the more fully I was persuaded he was right.

In fact she became so convinced of the Millerite view that in February of 1843 she wrote to Theodore, “I feel entirely willing to leave all arrangements and propositions about the farm, for really my mind is becoming so much more convinced of the truth of Miller’s views, that it appears perfectly useless to lay any plans for the future.”

. . . Angelina Grimké Weld’s adoption of Millerism was really quite consistent with the progression of her own views on the state of the world, the power and immanence of God, and the necessity of revolutionary change in social institutions and in the hearts and minds of people. Her championship of the cause despite the skepticism it evoked in others was equally consistent.

Often in her earlier correspondence Angelina Grimké Weld had leaned toward the possibility and perhaps the necessity of cataclysmic change. In 1836, toward the end of her self-imposed exile from abolitionism, she wrote to her sister Sarah:

Dearest does thou not feel that the Church (not our S[ociet]y only) is approaching a great conflict – the mighty battle between light and darkness, right and wrong – and I believe the saints will find the bitterest enemys among the high professors of religion. It will be a conflict between the form and substance of religion – sectarian feeling and pure christianity, and the governments of this world will be shaken to pieces in this war of opposing moral elements.

This does not sound so very different from her comment in March of 1843, at the beginning of the period William Miller had predicted would see the destruction of the world. “I do feel in my soul,” she wrote, “that the Lord has been preparing his way in the hearts of the people and that a great and mighty revolution is at hand, that the present prevailing form of godliness in church organisation will be superseded by the power of religion and the simplicity of the teaching of Jesus and his apostles.” (Anna M. Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women: Spirituality in the Lives of Five Abolitionist Lectures [Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000], pp. 133-136).

Ronald D. Graybill, in his essay “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” discusses Angelina’s post-1844 reinterpretation of the prophecies:

After the Disappointment, this spiritual interpretation clarified. No longer did she expect to see Jesus “in the body with which he ascended.” Now she believed his Second Coming was to be “in the hearts of the people.” This spiritual advent was to be preceded by a judgment. The “sitting of the Ancient of Days,” symbolized the “sitting in judgment of Truth – Eternal Truth, over all human organization and opinions. Is not that the present state of the world? Who cannot see and feel that we have entered a new era. . . . Truth like ‘a fiery stream has come forth’ and is finding its way into the most sacred recesses of Church and State and is most surely working the overthrow of both.”

There was never a time, Angelina believed, when so many were testifying against the “corruptions” of the church and at the same time refusing to form another sect. The era had arrived when “Truth must sit in judgment upon all human organizations – Political, Ecclesiastical, and Social before she can triumph over all error.” This, she said, was why judgment is antecedent to the coming of the Son of Man. The sanctuary to be cleansed in the last days was not, as Miller believed, the physical earth, but the hearts of God’s people. Therefore, the same work that was going on in the outward world was going on in human hearts. “Yes,” she said,

I fully believe in the downfall of every Earthly throne and the overthrow of every political government – the annihilation of every Ecclesiastical Establishment and the dissolution of every sect and party under the sun . . . but I am calm, hopeful, happy, for I see arising out of their ruins the Everlasting kingdom of God.

So, like the sabbatarian Adventists, Angelina concluded that the present era was an “epoch of judgment” the length of which could not be anticipated. Unlike them, she expected “no sudden revolution” but a “gradual undermining of all things that can be shaken.” (Ronald D. Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” in Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, eds., The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century [Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987], pp. 143-149).

Doug Morgan teaches history at Columbia Union College. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago and is the author of Adventism and the American Republic: The Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (2001).

This series is cross-posted at his Peace Messenger blog.

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